Some time in the past, humanity experienced an exponentially rapid development of technology calling the singularity, and developed the ability to travel faster than light, which is necessarily traveling backwards in time. But prior to exercising this ability, the Eschaton removed nine billion people from Earth, placing them on various colonies on nearby worlds, each with a cornucopia device (a fabricator capable of making anything, with minimal cost), and prominent inscriptions in stone stating that Eschaton—from the future—forbids altering causality within its light-cone. It was serious, too, since violations were met with destruction on the scale of light-years.

One of the colonies had decided that limitless plenty was not good for society, had destroyed their cornucopia, and had become a totalitarian state over the centuries. It’s imperial government had extended itself to include a small colony on Rochard’s World, so when the Festival arrived at the system and rained down phones which asked for entertainment and in return delivered anything that the asker requested, it rained them down on a planet with a society similar to Eastern Europe under Soviet rule. The small navy in the system tried to attack the Festival, but the ships were “eaten”.

On the Imperial world, an off-world engineer named Martin Springfield had been hired to upgrade the jump drive on their war ship. While waiting for the suspicious government to approve, a United Nations diplomat named Rachel Monseur introduced herself to him. They slept together. The next day his approval arrived, and he took the space elevator to the stationed fleet and began the upgrades. Rachel was also on the same ship, and UN observer to make sure that the Eschaton’s directives were obeyed. She was fairly high by rank, although her hierarchy was outside of theirs, and it rankled the chauvinistic and nationalistic officers.

The fleet’s mission was to destroy the Festival, and the admiral’s plan to do this was to jump several thousand years into the future, pick up a canister of mail from their future, placed at a predetermined location, find out what they did to destroy the Festival, and jump back to just after the Festival arrived—not quite violating causality—and do what they had apparently done. Martin was secretly in the employ of the Eschaton, and made sure that the calibration of their starting time-location was just a little off, so they they did not actually arrive at Rochard’s World in the past, but at about the same time as if they had not bothered with the time jumps at all. (The Eschaton preferred covert enforcement of causality to destructive enforcement.) However, a young and zealous secret police agent arrested Martin on questionable charges.

Rachel was also not an ordinary diplomat, and her mission was to deliver a cornucopia device to the communist-flavored revolutionaries who believed that abundance would transform society. Her cornucopia manufactured robots to free Martin, and also escape from the ship, as the officers of the ship (without involvement of the captain) tried her for being a spy. Also, it was clear that the fleet was doomed, because you cannot fight an enemy that can manufacture anything using raw force (it will simply consume the materials sent against it with the nanobots it uses for consume raw materials). So she manufactured a lifeboat and escaped with Martin, shortly before the ship was consumed by the Festival defenses.

It turned out that the first thing the revolutionary leader asked the Festival for was a cornucopia device. But society had completely deteriorated in the weeks after the arrival of the Festival. People had asked for all sorts of things, including biological augmentations, and the Festival delivered, although since it did not always know what the asker meant, the result was not always what was expected. The Duke, himself, was on the run, having asked for youth and friends that would always help him. He discovered that nine-year-old bodies do not have much strength, and the friends—intelligent animals (unclear if manufactured or modified) were a little uncanny.

The Festival was actually a sort of Von Neumann probe, sent by a civilization to ensure that its lines of communication were repaired, so it came into a system, established communications, replicated itself in two different directions, and shut down. But in addition to bringing abundance, it also brought hangers-on. Some of these were deadly, like the Mimes the Duke was running from, who threw pies at you made of nanobots which consumed you. Some of these were, strange, like the Critics, who tried to get people to see different points of view. The Festival also had different ideas of what flora and fauna were like.

It turned out that society could not handle suddenly being able to have anything it wanted, and large numbers of people wanted to return to the security and stability of the old days. So in the end the few officers that fled the ship fairly successfully restored the old government.

Singularity Sky is an great example of poor quality science fiction. The environment feels fairly arbitrary. The society is clearly a simplified form of Eastern European communism, down to the Russian-derived names, but with some arbitrary values and technology that are different, and hopefully futuristic. Any native words are made of arbitrary-sounding syllables, disconnected from any linguistic structure that might have plausibly generated them. The values of society are traditional, with arbitrary differences. Basically nothing about the world feels connected to past values and decision, and so nothing feels inevitable. It feels like when the author needed something about the world, he made it up. If he did not needed it, it did not exist.

The plot had no depth, and the characters had few decisions of plot consequence to make. There was also no real exploration of how ideas affect a society, which is one of hallmarks of science fiction. Nor was there any drama to make it a space opera. There was mostly a situation, and stuff happened. The only thing clearly portrayed is that attacking a civilization possessing nanobots that rapidly harvest resources with matter only serves as raw materials.

Poor science fiction seemingly universally has a sex scene of some type early on (although at least it was not the free love variety here). Science fiction is a very different genre than romance novel though, and in any case, if one wants to communicate romance, a sex scene is actually a poor way of doing it. Sleeping with someone you barely know might start a relationship, but it is hardly romantic. At least movies have the excuse of wanting an “R” rating so that adults do not think of it as a kid’s movie. But the core of the problem is that science fiction is about how ideas affect society, and this has nothing at all to do with sex, which only serves as a completely distraction from the main purpose. (It also rarely serves any purpose in the plot, and thus is also a complete distraction from that purpose, as well)

When I was in high school I wrote a short science fiction story that involved a space battle (of sorts) won by a simplistic idea. It was more a survival story than science fiction, and one of the recommendations of a friend was that I needed more technobabble. So I added some filler technobabble, which did make it feel more science-fictiony. That seems to be what Stross has done here—it is a little strange to be able to identify someone else doing what I did as a kid—except that entire scenes seem to serve that function. Well, except for the scenes that are space battle babble.

This is a book that might make a good textbook example of poor quality writing—right down to being in the running for the Bulwer-Lytton contest. Aside from instruction by negative example, however, this book offers nothing. Frankly, even reading this review is probably more effort than the book merits. But it is not all bad: I repented of a few fiction writing habits, having seen them reflected back at me.

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